February 17: Taking a camera for a walk….
Walking is my passion, second to photography. Nothing is more human than our capacity to walk upright. My dog accompanies me on long ambles through the extensive bush lands nearby. Her perspective is ground-level and it is olfactory; she rarely raises her head from a profusion of signs that I cannot even detect.
For me the landscape covers near and far, above and below. I am in and on and through the rises, the steeps, crevices and flats of it, my body borne up by it. My view extends 384,400 kilometres and further, even to that rugged alien land in the sky, the moon, a tumbled boulder that hangs miraculously in the blue vaults; and into the untracked mountains of the clouds.
Walking, one may as well be flying; it’s just a matter of continually falling and catching yourself on the next leg forward. After a few hundred metres it becomes effortless, the exertion is forgotten and attention is turned to the surroundings and the inner landscape of thoughts and fancies that pass in a blur like the track underfoot.
Apart from a tin whistle, there’s no other artistic instrument more portable than a mobile phone containing a camera, but any decent DSLR or compact is nearly equal in convenience and superior in capacity. So photography and walking are made for each other, and in my opinion they both qualify as senses; one topographic, one prosthetic, to add to the traditional five.
Fay Godwin was born Fay Simmonds on this date in 1931 in Berlin, Germany. The daughter of Sidney Simmonds, a British diplomat who had married Stella MacLean, an American artist, Fay was educated in schools around the world before in 1958 she settled in England. She had come to love walking as a girl in Austria, and joined the Ramblers’ Association in England in the mid-1950s (she was to become its president in 1987).
She married publisher Tony Godwin in 1961. They had two sons, Jeremy and Nicholas who became her introduction to photography; in her last recorded interview she recalled
I started life as an amateur photographer in the 1960s, using my camera to photograph my family on days out and holidays. I enjoyed using a camera, and thought that I could do something more with it. To turn photography into a paying hobby, you could say.
Fay and Tony met many writers in the course of his work and she started to make portraits of them, including Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Drabble, and Tom Stoppard;
It was 1966 by the time I started taking pictures seriously and books, newspapers and magazines of the time were full of great pictures that helped to inspire me.
In 1969, her marriage broke up very suddenly and she was on her own, and exchanged an urban life as a 60s north London wife and mother for walking amongst the wilder landscapes of Britain. Publication of her first co-authored book, The Oldest Road with writer J.R.L. Anderson followed in 1975. In 1970 she had photographed Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, with whom she formed a creative partnership which was to result in his lament for the Calder Valley, Remains of Elmet (1979).
It was through Hughes, she said, that she got to know England, but conversely, Hughes wrote his poems in the light of Godwin’s photographs. In a letter to Godwin he notes:
The few poems—1⁄2 dozen or so—I wrote before your pictures seem to me the least interesting—more or less a continuation of my other writing—but what I did from the pictures seems to me new, and there’s no other way I could have got them.
The photographs are not illustrations of the poems as one would expect: the collaboration reverses the typical relationship of author to artist so that Hughes’ poems illustrate Godwin’s photographs: they become part of the ‘complex tapestry’, enriching it with further sensory, historical, and personal contexts.
Next to Hughes’ poem Mill Ruins Godwin’s photograph of a crumbling mill prompts Hughes to reflect how, with the decline of the textile industry in the Valley, ‘Its great humming abbeys became tombs.’ Invoking Yeats’ cyclical view of history Hughes sees the 20th century decline of the Calder Valley which was Elmet, the last kingdom of the Celts to fall to the early Christian Angles, as the end of a cycle in which the technological abuse of nature is a final consequence of the Anglian conversion to Christianity and the latest example of turning the landscape into a waste. For Hughes, however, the ruined mills reveal that technological society is now doomed, like Elmet, to extinction.
Following from her collaborations with writers, her landscapes are always conscious of the human impact and of the impact of nature on the human. Each is a reinvention of the means of conveying such ideas, and she had her eye on the work of photographers she admired, Bill Brandt and Paul Strand especially, in doing so.
However Godwin, to the dismay of interviewers at the time of the release of The Remains of Elmet, described herself, unpoetically, as a documentary photographer. Brandt’s 1945 photograph of Top Withens is also an illustration, for Literary Britain, of Emily Bronte’s Withering Heights, his evocation of Heathcliffe’s home on the moors. But it is also the product of his artistry, of his urge to romanticise; the clearly sunlit clouds are montaged in from another image, quite at odds with the bleak greyness of the windswept grass and snow of the foreground. Godwin, in tune with Hughes’ thesis, shows us a the fact that this is an uninhabited ruin, and her backlit interpretation and looming cloud is no fabrication, though the scene is still windswept and portentous and still carries neo-romantic baggage.
Her photography is certainly not part of the contemporary ‘New Topographics’, but it belongs to a peculiarly British impulse from this period, the ‘Concerned Landscape’, a term coined by Jim Harold in the eighties when the book Second Nature (1984, Jonathan Cape) appeared containing Godwin’s images alongside Hamish Fulton and (the English) John Hilliard. At this time Richard Long was using photography to document his ‘walking sculptures’ and earth sculptures, and Andy Goldsworthy was recording constructions of natural materials made in the landscape.
Likewise, Godwin’s concerns are with the earth and our assaults on it. From the 70s onwards, her images included car carcasses protruding from waterways, the random litter of shacks and caravans over the countryside, the concrete debris of war on the beaches and ubiquitous signs intimidating would-be walkers. It is Godwin’s’ wit that first attracted me to her photographs and it was her consciousness of human folly against nature that drove it, resulting in bitingly humorous imagery like that found in her 1982 Bison at Chalk Farm and Other Snaps.
Godwin’ outrage mounts in Our Forbidden Land (1990) an unequivocal, impassioned account of the effects of the closure of vast tracts of countryside for commercial, venal reasons. She campaigned for access by ramblers and walkers along ‘public ways’ in Britain.
It is this I remember of my visits to Britain, that crowded island on which somehow one can walk unimpeded along paths lined with thick vegetation between farms. In Honiton I could amble out of a suburban street, through a gate and into the woods along what were oddly called ‘Permissive Paths’ through a bog lined with the moss and ferns, past 200 year-old oaks, birch and even more ancient coppiced alders, climbing steeply to the top of Roundball hill which seemed to me to be some sort of ancient constructed embankment, though no doubt its shape is due to the many agrarian acitivities there over centuries. The view was as spectacular as that I might find on an Alp, for the price of a short stroll!
In England, walking is the artists’ and poets’ sport, promoted in particular by Wordsworth and celebrated in the art of Richard Long and Fay Godwin. Rights of way, public paths and the right to roam on green spaces of the UK were what Godwin fought for through her presidency of the Ramblers’ Association, which successfully campaigned for full rights of responsible access to all of Britain’s green spaces realised in the the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (the CRoW Act). Happily she was to see the Act implemented before she died in 2005.
There is an Australian connection with Godwin. After graduating in 1975, Sydney-born Fiona Hall went to Europe and in London worked as an assistant to Fay Godwin,.
One thought on “February 17: Passage”
I’ve admired Godwin’s work for a long time, all of it very powerful. Especially like the still life studies of plants pressed against glass… beautiful found compositions.
LikeLiked by 1 person